The relationship between the Jewish community and the Labour Party was in pretty dire straits at the start of 2019. The summer of 2018 had been dominated by a row over Labour’s eventual acceptance of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism, which occurred after the unprecedented ‘Enough is Enough’ rally led by Jewish community organisations in Parliament Square.
The year soon saw a stream of Labour Party members and candidates facing disciplinary processes for alleged antisemitism. In February, a row broke out between some members of the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) and Jennie Formby, the party’s general sectary after MPs Catherine McKinnell and Ruth Smeeth proposed a motion calling on the leadership to “adequately tackle cases of antisemitism”.
Other members of the PLP also accused Formby of covering up antisemitism over her refusal to release any data on disciplinary cases. A week later, the Labour Party released limited figures claiming that there were 673 cases of alleged antisemitism. The party had expelled 12 people to that date.
In March Jackie Walker was expelled more than two years after her original offending comments, including claims that Holocaust Memorial Day only commemorated Jewish victims. Leaks also showed that Jeremy Corbyn had involved himself in a disciplinary case and that his staff had asked to be copied into complaints, both of which had been denied by the Labour Party until this point.
In May, Pete Willsman was suspended for claiming that the Israeli embassy had organised a letter from 68 Rabbis in 2018, criticising Labour for changing the IHRA definition of antisemitism. In the summer, the Community Security Trust (CST) uncovered a network of Twitter accounts that had been at the centre of promoting a narrative about the weaponisation and denial of antisemitism in the Labour Party. These 36 accounts were part of a network that would run hashtag campaigns to target MPs and other leading figures who were speaking out against Labour antisemitism.
One particular account referenced was @socialistvoice, run by expelled member Scott Nelson, who regularly interacted with Holocaust deniers and neo-Nazis. Another was Heather Mendick, who was appointed by Jeremy Corbyn as Jewish Community Liaison Officer, an active supporter of then MP Chris Williamson and Pete Willsman.
Over the course of the year, many other candidates, councillors and activists were also caught up in antisemitism allegations. Multiple candidates were forced to resign, were suspended or became mired in controversy. For example, a senior councillor in Leicester was suspended for sharing content from David Duke, former grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. Three of Labour’s 16 candidates in Torbay’s local elections were suspended for posting content such as “New World Order Zionist Jews admitting they want to destroy every none [sic] Jew” and talking about “fifth columnists” in Labour. A council candidate in Manchester wrote in 2014 that seeing an Israeli flag made her feel sick, but was allowed to remain as a candidate and won her election.
After the General Election, these incidents continued, particularly with members blaming Zionists or media smears on Labour for the party’s defeat, and denying the problem of antisemitism had an impact in the election.
These issues have continued into the Labour Leadership Race. After the Board of Deputies released its 10 pledges for Labour leadership candidates, Rachael Cousins (the owner of the Rachael Swindon Twitter account) tweeted a list of demands to the Board of Deputies, including insisting the organisation should apologise for and condemn Israel, a common trope holding all Jews responsible for the Israeli government.
The relationship between the Labour Party and the Jewish Labour Movement (JLM), an affiliated socialist society of the party, is emblematic of the complete loss of trust between Jews and the party. JLM was instrumental in calling, and collating evidence, for the Equalities and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) inquiry into antisemitism in the party. After the resignation of Luciana Berger, its Parliamentary Chair, JLM debated disaffiliating from Labour. Although this didn’t happen, the movement passed a motion at its AGM saying that Labour was institutionally antisemitic and that it had no confidence in Jeremy Corbyn. Prior to this, Labour had scrapped the JLM training which had begun to be carried out in local part branches and at conferences. The relationship plunged to a new low at the start of the General Election, when JLM confirmed that it would only campaign “in exceptional circumstances” and instead campaigned solely for Ruth Smeeth, Margaret Hodge, Alex Sobel and Rosie Duffield.
The disgraced former MP for Derby North became a symbol of Jew-baiting and hatred, and caused an unnecessary saga that took far too long to resolve. Williamson came into 2019 still facing calls for the Labour whip to be suspended from him for sharing platforms with expelled members, denying antisemitism in the Labour Party and signing a petition in support of controversial jazz musician Gilad Atzmon.
Despite this, Jeremy Corbyn told Derbyshire Live: “Chris Williamson is a very good, very effective Labour MP. He’s a very strong anti-racist campaigner. He is not antisemitic in any way.”
Williamson further angered anti-racists in Labour by booking a room in Parliament to host a film screening in Parliament for then-suspended member Jackie Walker. In late February, footage was uncovered of Williamson saying that Labour was “too apologetic” over antisemitism. The party confirmed that he would be under investigation for a pattern of behaviour but would remain as an MP. However, after much anger from then-deputy leader Tom Watson, backbench MPs and a statement from HOPE not Hate, he was suspended.
Unfortunately, this did not prove to be the end of this sorry tale. In June, Williamson’s suspension was lifted by a three-person NEC panel and he was issued with a formal warning. It then took two days, and pressure from 120 MPs and peers, plus 70 Labour staff members, for his suspension to be reimposed. He unsuccessfully attempted to return as a Labour MP through the courts and after he was refused permission to stand as a Labour Party candidate in the General Election, he resigned from the party. He got his final kicking of the year at the ballot box, receiving just 635 votes and losing his deposit in Derby North. However, it should be remembered that his case was yet another that dragged out so long that Labour never had to take the final decision to expel him.
2019 saw the exodus of leading Labour figures who felt that the Labour Party could no longer find a way back to effectively fighting antisemitism, from Members of Parliament to key activists. In February, after years of fighting left wing antisemitism, from within student politics to amongst Labour members, and a fortnight after a proposed no confidence motion from Liverpool Wavertree CLP, Luciana Berger quit the Labour Party. She stated that she had become ‘embarrassed and ashamed to remain in the Labour Party,’ that the ‘leadership ha[d] wilfully and repeatedly failed to address hatred against Jewish people within its ranks’ and that she looked forward to ‘leaving behind a culture of bullying, bigotry and intimidation.’ Other MPs who left the Labour Party at a similar time also referred to Labour antisemitism in their resignations, including Mike Gapes, Ian Austin and Ann Coffey.
In October, Labour was faced with another resignation from a Jewish woman in a Liverpool constituency, with Dame Louise Ellman resigning two weeks after a no confidence motion was tabled against her in Liverpool Riverside CLP on Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the Jewish year. Dame Ellman said that ‘antisemitism had become mainstream in the Labour Party’ and that ‘the Labour Party is no longer a safe place for Jews and Jeremy Corbyn must bear the responsibility for this.’
In 2019, the Labour Party became the second ever political party after the British National Party to be investigated by the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), a body they set up whilst in government. The investigation was triggered by complaints made to the EHRC that led them to believe that Labour may have ‘unlawfully discriminated against people because of their ethnicity and religious beliefs.’ Due to the volume and severity of the complaints, the EHRC made this a full statutory investigation.
The Labour Party rejected that it acted unlawfully, but state they have fully cooperated with the investigation. The Jewish Labour Movement have been instrumental in coordinating testimonies from Labour members and non-members and whistleblowing statements from former and current staff that have been sent to the EHRC. Some of the whistleblowers took in a BBC Panorama documentary entitled ‘Is Labour AntiSemitic?’ which began to uncover the extent of the failures to deal with antisemitism and the political interference in the disciplinary processes.
Rather than setting to work to address the issues raised in the documentary, Labour made complaints to Ofcom and the BBC about perceived ‘inaccuracies’ in the programme but both were rejected. Part of their submission to the EHRC was leaked in the week before the General Election, detailing political interference by Jeremy Corbyn’s office, discrimination against Jewish members and lenient sanctions for antisemitism.
2020 will see the findings of the investigation and will be a pivotal moment in uncovering the true extent of antisemitism in the Labour Party and a huge test for the next leader of the Labour Party to deal with.